Monday, 23 April 2012

House of Lords Reform

Thoughts on the Joint Select Committee's Report on House of Lords Reform

Ask ten people on a UK high street what they feel the most important political issues are and I bet you constitutional reforms wouldn't make the top ten (in private polling undertaken last week, exactly 0% of people said that the House of Lords or political reform should be the Government's priority for next year).The economy, unemployment, pensions and the rising cost of living all chart high in everyday people's political concerns as they affect our lives in a noticeable way. So why are issues surrounding constitutional reform, namely reform of the House of Lords in the news today?

Recent reforms to the House of Lords have produced something of a revival in terms of attendance and activity, notably through the introduction of life peers who have become active in the daily activities of the House, especially in committee work. The subordinate position of the Lords is clearly established through the 1911 and 1949 Parliament Acts which constrained the House’s ability to veto a bill for one parliamentary term only. The Salisbury convention also demonstrates the House’s position as an inferior chamber and means the House of Lords will not challenge bills which are in the government’s manifesto. The House of Lords is also unable to challenge money bills and to introduce changes regarding taxation. The cross party nature of the Lords also ensures there is representation from all parties meaning the Commons must compromise and work with the Lords and cannot rely on  a government majority. The fact that a large number of members are life peers also means they are able to fully understand the processes within the House and are able to make a valuable contribution without having to fear the prospect of losing their place.

The House of Lords is a much misunderstood chamber, often referred to as the 'other place', the House currently consists of 786 mainly appointed life peers (down from 1,200 members in 1998). Although commonly called the 'Upper House', the Lords is politically inferior to the Commons in terms of powers and, some would argue, legitimacy. There are numerous issues surrounding the future of the House of Lords and I will try in this blog to present a non bias reflection on the positives and negatives of the Lords and where I feel the future of the House of Lords lies.

The House of Lords: what it does well and arguments it should stay the same
The present functions of the House of Lords can be seen to be; scrutiny, educative, and legislative. The House of Lords plays an unrivalled role in excellent scrutiny of legislation, the expertise present in the House complements the roles of the Commons. The European Union Committee, for example, is made up of around 80 Lords and has been highly praised for its work in scrutinising EU legislation. The Lords often work to fill in the gaps left by the Commons in terms of legislative scrutiny, without constituency pressures and with the wide variety of expertise present in the House of Lords, there is time for very detailed line by line scrutiny of legislation. It is often said that the Lords concentrate on the means rather than the ends of legislation, which is left to the Commons. The anticipated reaction of the Lords in passing legislation also means that the Commons is required to consider bills carefully.  Morning question times also aid in the scrutinising of government activities and allows the House to fuel the process of checks and balances. If there were an elected Second Chamber, this check would have to come from somewhere else, most likely the judiciary, this also raises controversy regarding prospects of Judicial Activism, a big problem in the USA which has two elected chambers
Secondly, as the Lords are free from the demands of constituents, they are able to focus on less sexy, attention grabbing pieces of legislation as they do not need to be concerned with a record to present to constituents. The more relaxed pace of proceedings and less adversarial atmosphere in the Lords also allows amendments to be introduced to ensure that legislation is watertight.
Finally, the Lords also play an important role regarding representation and education. As the membership of the House of Lords is mainly appointed, the House is much more micro-cosmically representative of society than the Commons. The House of Lords had female and BME members before the Commons and the House of Lords also has more disabled members than the Commons such as the late Lord Ashley or paralympian Dame Tanni Grey Thompson. The House also plays a valuable role in education and parliamentary outreach services through measures such as 'Peers in Schools'.

The House of Lords: what needs to change and arguments for reform
Nonetheless, the most obvious argument for reforming the House of Lords is the need for a legitimate and elected second chamber to ensure democracy and bring our polity into the 21st Century, especially as the only other country with a hereditary element to its law makers is Lesotho. Most people would assume that in a democracy, only those who have been elected and therefore have a mandate for power should be able to pass laws that affect the electorate. There is also widespread public support for a reformed second chamber with 69% of participants in a recent YouGov poll supporting a reformed House of Lords. Whilst the Lords do not have constituents and this aids in its scrutiny function, there is an obvious glaring downside to this, they have no constituents and therefore have no effective check on their powers despite the Lord's Whip, they have no need to have a consistent record of hard work .
The presence of Bishops in the House of Lords also raises questions over the representativeness of the House and its relevance in today's society. With only 7% of the UK calling themselves practising Christians and two thirds not having attended church in the past year, the influential role reserved for 26 Bishops in our legislature does raise concerns. Although religious diversity in the Lords has been improved by the appointment of a Cheif Rabbi, this only means that two of the major religions in the UK are represented, undermining arguments that the Lords are a more representative chamber. The argument that the House of Lords should also remain the why it is due to the expertise present is weakened by the statistic that only 10% of Lords are 'experts' and 41% are former politicians, councillors etc, it can also be argued that this expertise can be sought externally and this does not have to come from members of the House. 
Representation would also not necessarily be lost if the House were elected. If a proportional, preferential electoral system were used to elect the Lords such as STV or an open party list this would allow voters to choose between candidates and if they wish and select more women or BME candidates. 
Finally, although the House of Lords has seen a revival in attendance and activity in recent times, average attendance for Lords in 2009-10 was 388, significantly less than the total membership of the House. Although the Lords use significantly less resources than the Commons and do prove fairly good value for money, Lords can still claim up to £300 per sitting day attended, given there are some rather wealthy individuals in the Lords, a certain Lord Sugar springs to mind and even though these wealthier members will most likely not claim this allowance, it does still raise questions about the financial viability of the House.

In conclusion, I still really don't know where I stand on the issue of the House of Lords, the Liberal Democrat in me naturally veers towards the need for election for the sheer value of democracy and legitimacy and to haul our largely unreformed house in to the 21st century but from studying the current role of the Lords and the contributions it does make to our political and legislative system it is not as black and white as that. An elected second chamber would also potentially cause friction between the two houses if it were more powerful than the Commons, or more legitimate if a proportional system were used, or if it were only partly elected, it could prove to be superfluous to the Commons yet more expensive or potentially dilute the supremacy of the Commons. 

Whilst the issues of constitutional reform are of interest to myself and several of my politics student friends, most people who aren't politics students will see the attention around this issue as the wrong question at the wrong time and believe that the Coalition Government should be focussing its attentions on more pressing issues like the economy. The reform of the House of Lords and the issues it presents will not go away and reform will be a long slog, however, the public must be consulted at every stage and all arguments should be taken into account.
Norton, P. (2005). 'Parliament in British Politics', (Palgrave, Basingstoke) p.36

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